Sometimes you just need to walk backwards. OK, it’s not the best experience when someone suddenly does that in front of you in the middle of Oxford Street (which they do), but there’s a time and a place. The time was summer and the place was Glyndebourne in Sussex. Backwards to a day in the Old England.
Not my natural habitat, you understand: I’d been twice before in my life – or rather I’d been taken twice. And, although I did the organising this time, you could say I was still being taken again. It’s the kind of place where it’s best to be taken.
I had former colleagues to thank. When I stood down after seven not unsuccessful years as Chair of CILEx Regulation – the regulatory arm of the Chartered Institute of Legal Executives – some little bird sang to them that as a retirement gift I wouldn’t mind some vouchers to make it possible for me to have a day out, with someone special, at this most English of venues. With extraordinary generosity they did just that. Lovely people.
We settled on a Saturday in July – The Cunning Little Vixen by the Czech composer Janáček – lyrical, charming, life enhancing and (perhaps best of all) quite short so as to allow us to enjoy a balanced day for all its many pleasures. Hedging against the sort of summer which could sabotage the traditional picnic, we booked for dinner at one of the indoor restaurants, sorted out travel and sat back to fret over the changing weather forecast.
They run the operation with a frightening efficiency which is less English than German/Austrian. Catch the train they specify and from Lewes station they ease you into double decker buses, whisk you through the lovely countryside and drop you at precisely the point where you can stroll, ever so slowly, down the herbaceous borders and round the rose gardens before slipping effortlessly into a restaurant where tea, scones, jam and the all-important clotted cream drop from the trees.
There are covered as well as open places for a picnic, a library to snooze in, clear but unobtrusive announcements to keep you to time, and careful shepherding to ensure that occasional visitors get as fair a crack of the whip as the seasoned old lags.
It’s an oldish country house onto which a smallish modern opera house has been built. It’s an entirely private affair – hence the prices – and inevitably has to live with jibes about elitism, exclusivity and all the rest. As far as I’m concerned it’s just a matter of what you want to put in your shopping basket, a treat where the experience is worth more than just the music (which after all you can hear for free on Spotify), more than the gardens (which you can find for free in most parks), more than the food (which you can find locally, or cook for yourself at a fraction of the price).
Dressing up? No you don’t have to and we saw some bizarre combinations:
- dinner jacket plus walking shorts and boots?
- ragged tweed skirt and sagging, beloved old cardi?
- casual knitwear that would embarrass an American golfer
But yes, we dressed for the occasion because everyone – go on, admit it! – likes dressing up. Most of the people there joined in and who can object to being surrounded by people who want to look nice? More than anything, everyone seemed excited at being somewhere, and doing something, special. Even overhearing one or two Brexit-related conversations, just a week after that referendum, served only to emphasise that we were indeed in the Old England.
We enjoyed a beautiful production in an exceptionally comfortable auditorium. The weather stayed agreeable save for a passing squall which unfortunately caught us at the wrong end of the lake, but there were plenty of trees for shelter. And everything worked like clockwork: in the 90 minute interval they serve you a three course meal (easily booked in advance online) without for a moment letting you feel rushed. When it’s all over the buses are revving up, ready to relay you to the station.
My assumption was that this was a once-in-a-lifetime experience, and heavily subsidised at that. After about five minutes, to my alarm, my lovely partner was saying we have to do this every year. I confess I was starting to feel the same – and with suitable economies I suppose it could work. Just a matter, as I say, of what you want to put in your shopping basket. And a day at Glyndebourne may well be worth a few tins of baked beans over the winter.